CHAPTER VI. QUIMPER.
Quimper, although it is the centre of the real Brittany, is distinctly different from it. The elm-tree promenade that follows the winding river, which has quays and boats, renders the town very pretty and the big Hotel de la Prefecture, which alone covers the little western delta, gives it a thoroughly administrative and French appearance. You are aware that you are in the chef-lieu of a department, a fact brought home to you by the latter's division in arrondissements, with their large, medium, and small parishes, its committee of primary instruction, its saving banks, its town council and other modern inventions, which rob the cities of local colour, dear to the heart of the innocent tourist.
With all due deference to the people who pronounce the name of Quimper-Corentin as the synonyme of all that is ridiculous and provincial, it is a most delightful place, and well worth other more respected ones. You will not, it is true, find the charms and riotous wealth of colouring possessed by Quimperle; still, I know of few things that can equal the charming appearance of that alley following the edge of the river and shaded by the escarpment of a neighbouring mountain, which casts the dark shadows of its luxuriant foliage over it.
It does not take long to go through cities of this kind, and to know their most intimate recesses, and sometimes one stumbles across places that stay one's steps and fill one's heart with gladness.
Small cities, like small apartments, seem warmer and cosier to live in. But keep this illusion! There are more draughts in such apartments than in a palace, and a city of this kind is more deadly monotonous than the desert.
Returning to the hotel by one of those paths we dearly love, that rises and falls and winds, sometimes through a field, sometimes through grass and brambles, sometimes along a wall, which are filled in turn with daisies, pebbles and thistles, a path made for light thoughts and bantering conversation, - returning, I said, to the city, we heard cries and plaintive wails issue from under the slated roof of a square building. It was the slaughter-house.
At that moment I thought of some terrible city, of some frightful and immense place like Babylon or Babel, filled with cannibals and slaughter-houses, where they butchered men instead of animals; and I tried to discover a likeness to human agonies in those bleating and sobbing voices. I thought of groups of slaves brought there with ropes around their necks, to be tied to iron rings, and killed in order to feed their masters, who would eat their flesh from tables of carved ivory and wipe their lips on fine linen. Would their attitudes be more dejected, their eyes sadder or their prayers more pitiful?
While we were in Quimper, we went out one day through one side of the town and came back through the other, after tramping about eight hours.
Our guide was waiting for us under the porch of the hotel. He started in front of us and we followed. He was a little white-haired man, with a linen cap and torn shoes, and he wore an old brown coat that was many sizes too large for him. He stuttered when he spoke, and when he walked he knocked his knees together; but in spite of all this, he managed to advance very quickly, with a sort of nervous, almost febrile perseverance. From time to time, he would pull a leaf off a tree and clap it over his mouth to cool his lips. His business consists in going from one place to another, attending to letters and errands. He goes to Douarnenez, Quimperle, Brest and even to Rennes, which is forty miles away (a journey which he accomplished in four days, including going and coming). His whole ambition, he said, was to return to Rennes once more during his lifetime. And only for the purpose, mind you, of going back, of making the trip, and being able to boast of it afterwards. He knows every road and every commune that has a steeple; he takes short cuts across the fields, opens gates, and when he passes in front of a farm, he never fails to greet its owners. Having listened to the birds all his life, he has learned to imitate their chirpings, and when he walks along the roads, under the trees, he whistles as his feathered friends do, in order to charm his solitude.
Our first stop was at Loc-Maria, an ancient monastery, given in olden times by Conan III to the abbey of Fontevrault; it is situated a quarter of a mile from the town. This monastery has not been shamefully utilised like the abbey of poor Robert d'Arbrissel. It is deserted, but has not been sullied. Its Gothic portal does not re-echo the voices of jailers, and though there may not be much of it, one experiences neither disgust nor rebellion. In that little chapel, of a rather severe Romance style, the only curious thing is a large granite holy-water basin which stands on the floor and is almost black. It is wide and deep and represents to perfection the real Catholic holy-water basin, made to receive the entire body of an infant, and not in the least like those narrow shells in our churches in which you can only dip your fingers. With its clear water rendered more limpid by the contrast of a greenish bed, the vegetation which has grown all around it during the religious calm of centuries, its crumbling angles, and its great mass of bronzed stone, it looks like one of those hollowed rocks which contain salt water.
After we had inspected the chapel carefully, we walked to the river, crossed it in a boat, and plunged into the country.